Nautical Terms
September 11, 2022

10 Common Words or Sayings We Use That Came From the British Navy

Rule Britannia, Britannia, rule the waves. This is the first line of the chorus of a patriotic British song written in 1740 by Thomas Ame. The pride in the British navy was well founded, their approximately 150 year dominance of the oceans allowed the building of the British Empire. The British navy was a source of pride and its traditions soaked deeply into British culture and migrated into the United States in everyday language. We may have forgotten the origins but we still pay homage to the seafaring traditions through our frequent usage of these words or phrases. Thanks to Meriam Webster online for much of this information.

Slush Fund: Money used for illicit purposes: slush referred to the grease rendered from salt meat cooked on a ship. It was skimmed and barreled and sold in port and the money received from it was used to buy luxuries (usually food) for the crew.

Bitter End: Seeing something through to the end even if unpleasant. Bitter is the term for a turn of anchoring rope around the bitts. When the rope is fully extended you have reached the bitter end. You are also literally at the end of your rope.

Three Sheets to the Wind: to be drunk: Sheets are ropes or chains attached to the lower corner of a ship’s sails and used to extend or shorten the sails. On a three sailed vessel with all three sheets loosened the boat would wallow about uncontrollably as if it were drunk.

Pipe Down: To stop talking or making noise: The boatswain’s pipe or whistle is used to communicate with the crew. To dismiss a crew the pipe is sounded and the command “pipe down” is given. With most of the crew now below decks there is much less noise and commotion on deck.

Toe the Line: To act correctly, properly: When a ship’s crew was called for inspection, which happened frequently, the deck would become very crowded. It was important that everyone be in their proper place. The decks were made of planks and there was naturally a line or gap where two planks met. The sailors, to form a straight line for inspection would literally put their toes on the proper line. It was also common during the wooden ship era for sailors to be barefoot while at sea.

By and Large: On the whole or in general: This is a sailing term which means the vessel is able to sail well both towards the wind and with the wind. By in this instance means near or at hand and large means with the wind on the quarter.

Groggy: To be weak or unsteady: An 18th century Admiral had a habit of wearing a grogram cloak (a loosely woven fabric made entirely or partially from silk). This habit earned him the nickname of “Old Grog”. Old Grog ordered that the sailors daily ration of rum be mixed with water (not realizing that the amount nor effect of alcohol was not affected by adding water). Still the sailors weren’t happy and began calling the mixture grog. Eventually grog became a general term for alcohol and groggy became associated with drunkenness or the appearance of drunkenness.

Aloof: Removed or distant physically or emotionally: To keep aloof while sailing refers to sailing into the wind as a way to stay clear of the shore or a hazard. This “steering away” technique of keeping aloof gradually became related to physical or emotional distance or indifference.

A1: Of the best or finest quality: This classification was used prior to 1800 by the British insurer Lloyd’s of London, who is still busy issuing commercial insurance today. Lloyds used A1 to refer to a new ship or a restored or renewed ship to signify that the vessel was “well and sufficiently found”. In an island nation with vast quantities of shipping it wasn’t long before the classification was in common usage to refer to anything of top quality.

Caboose: a train car, usually attached to the rear of a train, mainly for the use of the train crew. In the United States this definition was attached to trains in the 19th century. Prior to that it was used to refer to a hut and earlier than that it referred to a ship’s galley or a deckhouse where cooking was done.